Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Healthy Mind

Judy during a chicken workshop, spring of 2011. 
Photo by Sarah Cress.


The ancient Greeks emphasized a healthy mind in a healthy body as a human ideal. We know now that a healthy body promotes a healthy brain. Our brain is not, in my view, exactly the same as our mind, but the brain is the mind’s base, its mode of operation certainly. If we lose our brain, our minds are helpless.

Aging brings most of us new experiences of forgetfulness. Not only: where did we put our car keys, but what was it we walked into the kitchen to do? Or what is the name of that woman or that author? One successful author I know said bluntly: "I’m having trouble with nouns."

Sometimes I can’t remember an adjective or a verb either. I know the meaning, but the exact word won’t come to me.  I’ll open a thesaurus and look for similar words, and usually I’ll find it or it will come to me. In fact, most of the forgetting I experience is because the memory is delayed. If I relax, the word will float in sometimes in a few minutes, sometimes a day later.

One explanation I heard was that we have so much stored in our brains that our filing cabinets are full, and it takes awhile to retrieve a name or a verb. Fortunately, the kitchen errand usually comes back to me once I’m in the kitchen.

These experiences can make you wonder: Is my mind going? Am I getting dementia? I’m sure I’m not since generally my memory and muse (Memory was the Mother of the Nine Muses in Greek mythology) are both healthy, active, and constant companions as I write books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.

An article in AARP Magazine, March/April 2010, page 39 ff, "Boost Your Brain Health," revealed new information about our brains: "An accomplished mathematician in his early seventies consulted [his doctor] after struggling with calculations, and after his wife noticed he was getting cranky. [The doctor] put the mathematician through a battery of tests–and the man got top scores on all of them, including 30 out of 30 on a memory test and a whopping 140 on his IQ test. So when [the doctor] saw his brain scan, he was stunned: it had all the markings of full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.

"Usually people with such profound brain changes can barely carry on a conversation....An answer, many scientists believe, is ‘cognitive reserve’: the combination of a person’s innate abilities and the additional brainpower that comes from challenging the mind. Studies show that diverse, mentally simulating tasks result in more brain cells, more robust connections among those cells, and a greater ability to bypass age- or disease-related trouble spots in the brain."

Here are some recommended lifestyle habits/routines for a healthy brain:

1) Walk and talk with a partner.
2) Vary your routine. Novelty stimulates neural connections.
3) Be a lifelong learner.
4) Play.
5) De-stress. Focus your mind and relax.
6) Imagine. Include creativity in your day.
7) Socialize and make new friends.
8) Eat right–a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
9) Work with your doctor to keep blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol in check.
10) Shun gimmicks. Rely on challenging new habits.

You can get a reprint of the article by calling 866-888-3723. You can find it on line at

I do walk alone. I see people to talk to usually over a meal. When I teach, I see more people more often. I talk to people in the post office, in stores, to my neighbors, and I have some regular email friends.

I do love my routines, and I hate it when I hit interruptions like a problem with my chickens. A predator came into the orchard midday last week and killed a hen. Or my car breaks down, or I get sick. I do work to avoid such crises by being proactive, taking good care of my hens, my car, and my health. When the problems arise, and they always do, our brains can get to work at solving them.

Here’s where the mind and attitude come in.

It doesn’t even occur to me to stop keeping hens. I begin to "brainstorm" on solutions. I ask my growingsmallfarms listserve for advice. I ask people who understand dogs about possible guard dogs for the hens. Getting a new dog would be a major challenge at this point in my life, plus expense, but I’ll do that rather than give up my hens or put them back into the orchard without a good solution.

If my car is fixable, I get it fixed, even though it’s sixteen years old. If I’ve gotten sick, I do everything I can to get back to full health, and if need be, I change my lifestyle: more exercise, stop drinking coffee, more servings of fruit and vegetables daily.

The mind can throw up its hands and despair or set the brain to work on a solution.

All human beings have problems. Wise human beings accept that there will be problems, some within their power to solve, others beyond their control. That’s why the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer is so potent: "Give me the courage to change the things I can change, to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to tell the difference."

The first thing we can change is our attitude. I know too many people my age who accept the changes aging brings as inevitable, steps closer to death. They expect to have a stroke or a heart attack. When they have new problems with legs, feet, knees, hips, they bow to the inevitable or expect doctors to solve their problems with medicine or surgery. Obviously sometimes doctors are needed, but we can often improve our own health even when we’re old.

I was having twinges in my knees twenty years ago. A man who worked in fitness told me to walk more. My doctor also kept urging me to walk farther. "The more exercise, the better. Walk two miles instead of one." So I have been walking, and my knees rarely have twinges.

I eat less–small, more frequent meals, and I stopped my bedtime snack. I gave up coffee, and now I can tell better when I’m tired. It was a silly reason I finally worked on losing weight, but that also helped my knees. I’d bought a dress I liked for my son’s wedding, but I needed to lose ten pounds for it to fit comfortably. I did fairly easily: less food, more walking, and I’ve kept that up.

It may be harder to change and try new things as we age.

Sometimes I’m scared, as I was about attending the Writers’ Police Academy in High Point last September. But I summoned my courage, got help with directions, and did it. I got lost twice, but I found my way. Then, not only did I have the reward of an excellent program, from which I learned new things to help me in my "after fifties" career of mystery writer, but when I wrote up my experience, the editor of the National Sisters in Crime Newsletter, In Sinc, asked to quote part of my blog on her article on the Writers’ Police Academy on page one of the December issue of In Sinc.

It has been true all my adult life that, by taking on my problems (I do have a stubborn streak), by learning to "invent in desperate circumstances" (Sartre’s definition of a genius), I have not only found new solutions but have become more confident for the next time. My "reach" out into the world grows with each new challenge taken on.

I can’t always solve my problems myself. But that means asking help, and I do. I give to others what I can, and they give to me. Within reason, other people like to help.

When I had a small press, I needed so much help. I was always trying to find money, volunteers, or ideas for finding money or volunteers. Yes, people said no. So I learned which people might give money; which, time; which might give me a ride or might have ideas for solutions. I always emphasized that they had a choice: "If you want to. If it’s convenient. Or maybe you know someone?"

It’s hard to ask, but we forget that most people like to help if they can.

Yesterday Eric offered to paint the fascia boards on my house. Debbie was here to take photos for her article on me and my new book. She realized, too, that I’d need a good photo for the promotion of the book. I didn’t even have to ask. I accepted both offers gratefully. Their six-year-old daughter, Beckett, who had been shy yesterday afternoon, gradually tuned in to the spirit of what was going on with the adults.

When I asked her to draw me a picture to put on my refrigerator, she did. Now I have a handsome Thanksgiving boy turkey, with very colorful feathers, smack dab in the middle of my refrigerator.

Humor, too. Don’t forget that a healthy mind sees humor and can laugh, not only at the foibles of others, but at one’s own.


  1. Fantastic blog, Judy. Wow, So did the man have Alzheimers or not? He certainly had a great memory and a high IQ. Did the article clarify.

    And to give up coffee.... Nooooooo :) The rest makes so much sense to me. :)

  2. I love this blog. It's good to hear the same fears expressed and then dealt with constructively! Thank you.